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Meet the Robinsons
Reviewed by Matthew Pook, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Steve Anderson and Michelle Bochner and Jon Brenstein
Publisher:   Disney
Genre:   Animated sci-fi
Released:   March 2007
Review Date:   April 18, 2007
Audience Rating:   G
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

If the first notable thing about a film is the fact that it has seven screenwriters, you know that you are in trouble and are not going to enjoy the next ninety minutes.

If you're going to watch a computer-animated film and it's not made by Pixar, then you know that you are in trouble and are not going to enjoy the next ninety minutes.

If you're going to watch a Disney film and it's not made by Pixar, then you know that you are in trouble and are not going to enjoy the next ninety minutes.

All of which sums up how I felt going in to see Meet the Robinsons, the latest offering from the House of Mouse and its very first in-house feature to fully employ computer animation. What is surprising is that the film gamely almost overcomes these three handicaps — but ultimately, when a film's best character is a mute, hyper-intelligent, spider-legged, flight-capable bowler hat named Doris, not even having Pixar's chief creative officer John Lasseter as your executive producer is going to save your film.

What is really surprising is that I actually enjoyed Meet the Robinsons despite its shortcomings. My partner Louise and daughter Alex liked it a lot more, but neither of them are grumpy old critics. What is even more surprising is that I think Meet the Robinsons deserves a sequel, one that could actually be a whole lot better.

A Hat with a Man

Meet the Robinsons is based on the children's book A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce. At its heart is Lewis, all spectacles and spiky blond hair, a young orphan and budding scientific genius. His brilliance and over-enthusiasm have put off over a hundred prospective parents, but he desperately wants a family, so Lewis invents a memory scanner in the hopes that he can recall his mother. After the device wrecks his school science fair, up pops the mysterious Wilbur, a clean-cut, Disneyfied version of the Fifties bequiffed bad boy, driving a sleek, bubble-doomed, befinned time machine. Wilbur has a warning: Watch out for Bowler Hat Man. He wants Lewis' memory scanner and will do anything to get it, including sabotaging it and the science fair.

After an argument the time machine gets damaged, and it can only be repaired in the future and only by Lewis. Once there, hero and viewer find themselves in a glorious new world of Gernsbackian retro sci-fi, but neither have the time to take it in before Lewis is hidden in Wilbur's family home. Meanwhile the Bowler Hat Guy is doing his best to undermine Lewis' future.

From this setup the plot proceeds as expected. Lewis does meet Wilbur's family, he does fix the time machine, he does realise that there is more to life than pure science, and he does solve Bowler Hat Guy's particular problems. All of which the viewer will have worked out for himself roughly twenty minutes into the film, because this is from the House of Mouse after all, and "unpredictable" is not a word found in the Disney dictionary.

Despite a slow start and flagging slightly in the middle, once it gets into its stride, Meet the Robinsons proceeds almost frantically, with too much going on for its own good. Things dart past the viewer too fast to take in, particularly Wilbur's family, the Robinsons. We see only snapshots of this madcap clan, a ridiculous state of affairs given the importance of the family in the story. Indeed, an army of singing, swinging frogs with real Rat Pack style get more meaningful screen time than any member of the Robinsons. Hopefully a sequel could explore the Robinson family more dutifully than Meet the Robinsons does.

If Meet the Robinsons has a star, it is not young Lewis. Nor is it Bowler Hat Guy, the lanky moustachioed, moustache twirling villain of the film. Voiced by the film's director, Steve Anderson, Bowler Hat Guy has dreams worthy of an evil genius, but his inadequacies will always thwart his efforts. Bowler Hat Guy is rather the film's co-star and sidekick to its star. The star is Doris, the brilliant bowler hat with the mind and single eye of HAL 9000 and a T-1000 combined, who directs her plans of future domination through Bowler Hat Guy.

No Toy Story

2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator are two of the various films referenced by Meet the Robinsons, mostly time-travel movies, though the most obvious is The Matrix. Yet apart from the latter, they mostly whiz by too fast to take in, which sabotages any attempt by the film to satisfy its adult audience. Pixar know how to work its references, and by their standards this is a cardinal sin.

All right, so Meet the Robinsons is no Pixar film, but by their lofty standards this is no bad attempt. Certainly Meet the Robinsons is far from unwatchable — if the eye can keep up — and doubtless it will keep the kids happy. Both its message and its plot are predictable, but looks great in parts, it is also funny in places, and the graphics are better than most other computer animated movies. For the more discerning science fiction devotee, though, Meet the Robinsons is worth the wait for it to appear on DVD.

In the meantime, it is a sure sign that Disney does not understand this film nor know how to merchandise it. All three of us wanted a plush Doris. Indeed, it would be really cool to have a spiderlegged Doris to clip onto the top of your computer flat screen. But our local Disney store had none. Heck, Doris gets Meet the Robinsons an extra rating point all by her genius self.

Matthew Pook, Revolution SF's games editor, does not have a Doris. Or a mini-Doris. He is directed instead by a Louise and an Alex.

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